Trapwire is watching you in Ottawa

A U.S. counter-terrorist surveillance network has set up shop in our capital too, according to WikiLeaks

Have you heard of Trapwire? It’s a formerly obscure counter-terrorist surveillance network, created by a company run by ex-CIA agents, that links together thousands of ordinary, privately owned security cameras, digitally analyzing the footage they generate and delivering it to various police departments and branches of the U.S. federal government. It’s been making headlines in the U.S.  since Wikileaks exposed its existence, and online chatter has been obsessively focused on it ever since. There’s been endless analysis, opinion, misinformation and clarification (here’s a credible run-down of the story so far). Everyone from NBC to Anonymous is talking about it, but the Canadian media has yet to take notice. Which is surprising, since Trapwire is apparently live in Ottawa.

Wikileaks has leaked emails from private security firm Stratfor, who market Trapwire. One of them, written by Stratfor vice president Fred Burton, says:

“Trapwire is in place at every HVT in NYC, DC, London, Ottawa and LA.” 

In U.S. Military parlance, an HVT is a “high-value target,” like a federal government building, a military structure or a travel hub. Ottawa has lots of those, and apparently they all house cameras that are spying on Canadians and feeding the footage to Trapwire.

Trapwire’s menace has been overhyped. It does not collect facial recognition data, as has been rumoured. Neither does it allow authorities to track individuals as they move from camera site to camera site. These myths have been debunked, as journalists and security analysts learn more about what the Trapwire network does in fact do. The language around that is pretty fuzzy. Trapwire claims to “detect patterns of behavior indicative of pre-operational planning.” What does this mean? Does Trapwire watch for  individuals who visit and stake out several possible targets? How can it tell them apart from sight-seeing tourists? What exactly indicates “pre-operational planning”? Have there been enough terrorist operations to provide a viable dataset on which Trapwire can base its scrutiny? The mechanics and effectiveness of the system is very much in doubt.

Regardless of whether or not Trapwire works, it’s still a cause for concern. By piggybacking on privately owned cameras and linking them to government authorities, Trapwire circumvents privacy laws and law enforcement protocols. Annalee Newitz at Gawker’s i09 blog argues persuasively that the whole thing probably violates U.S. Constitutional law. Noah Scachtman at Wired documents the sleazy dealings between Trapwire and Stratfor as they colluded to sell expensive licenses (starting at $20,000) to government agencies and private clients.

Add to this the one crucial question for us Canadians. If Trapwire’s activity does indeed extend to Ottawa, who’s on the receiving end of the data flow? Is it our government or is Homeland Security spying on Canadians as well?

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown